What are deceptive design patterns?

Deceptive design patterns are tricks used by websites and apps to get you to do things you might not otherwise do, like buy things, sign up for services or switch your settings. Another phrase used to describe deceptive design patterns is dark patterns*, which was originally coined in 2010 by user experience specialist Harry Brignall, drawing attention to this practice and building momentum around calling it out. Brignall regularly tweets some of the worst examples of deceptive designs online and hands out kudos for honest user experiences.

Deceptive design patterns show up as tricky color schemes, frustrating mazes, sneaky designs and confusing language. Websites use these techniques to influence your behavior into a direction that benefits them more than it benefits you. Here are examples of deceptive or manipulative designs you might run into.

Confusing design and language

You won’t find deceptive designs on every website, but we’ve all experienced confusing situations like:

  • A “No thanks” button that is pale grey but the “Sign me up” button is enticingly bright blue.
  • A box that is pre-checked, making it unclear if you are opting in or opting out if you uncheck it.
  • A graphic that has an X-out box as part of the design rather than being functional. When you click the X, you are redirected to a webpage.
  • A site that’s swimming with so many buttons, you’re almost bound to click one of them.

They may also appear in text taking the form of:

  • Double negatives like Do not uncheck this box if you want to keep receiving emails from us.
  • Buried opt-out explanations in the terms and conditions fine print.
  • Hurdles for closing an account, like listing reasons you shouldn’t instead of simply respecting your wishes.
  • Word choices that make it unclear what you’re choosing.

Sales pressure

Visiting an ecommerce site means you’re going to be sold items, which everyone expects. There’s a fine line, however, between straight-forward product recommendations and slimy sales techniques. Deceptive design patterns abound on shopping sites to manipulate you into buying or signing up for things. Tactics that might include:

Cart sneaking: Just like kids try to slip cookies into a grocery cart, some sites also sneak items to your shopping cart. It might be a warranty or protection policy that is easy to miss during check out.

Fake customers: Some sites try to boost sales by creating fake customers to give the appearance that people are actively shopping there. Personally, I am deeply embarrassed about buying what looked like a stylish flowing duster jacket that Tara from Nashville received and gave five stars one week ago. The jacket had also been relentlessly promoted to me on social media, and I finally gave in only to receive an ill-fitting poncho that was neither flowy, nor a jacket, nor stylish in any way.

Confirmshaming: This is when a site tries to guilt or shame you into opting in. When you decline, they show you messages like: You must be part of the “I’ll pay more club” or No thanks, I already know everything there is to know.

Software installation obstacle course

During a software installation process, sometimes you need to click through a series of windows that don’t do anything in terms of installing the software. They give you the feeling of progress, but they’re actually designed to get you to install extra “toolbars” or trials of other software, but they’re really disguised ads. The prompts are confusing, making the bonus software sound essential, but in general these design patterns lure people into adding — and even buying — services they don’t want. Once they’re installed they look like they’re part of the system and are hard to remove.

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Forced continuity

Some subscription services offer a limited trial basis, which can be ideal for trying something new. But when they force you to hand over your credit card information to start the trial, their goal is to get you to pay automatically when the trial ends. That’s a deceptive design pattern called forced continuity. A better customer experience would be to remind you and invite you to enroll after the trial period ends.

Opting in… forever

The “roach motel” is another opt-in tactic dubbed as such because it opts you in and makes it nearly impossible to leave. If you’ve ever gone round and round trying to downgrade from a premium-level account or found it took a lot of effort to close or cancel an account because the options were buried or you had to chat, verify and verify yet again, you’ve clearly visited a roach motel.

Most people expect that clicking a box opts them into a service or subscription. Some sites use that box as an opt-out, taking the approach that if a person should be opted in automatically. This trick is annoying, but mostly benign when it comes to an email newsletter; one can usually unsubscribe from newsletters fairly quickly.

But opt-in tactics have also been used for election campaign fundraising at the cost of millions of dollars from the bank accounts of people who can’t afford it.

A Princeton research project looked at thousands of emails sent by political campaigns of both major parties and found that “manipulative tactics are the norm, not the exception.” Asking donors to make regular gifts is reasonable; making that the default is not. For example, during the 2020 U.S. election cycle, the Trump campaign deployed deceptive design patterns of pre-checked boxes to get recurring donations from many unsuspecting supporters.

Are deceptive design patterns illegal?

If manipulative and deceptive designs are so bad, why do we keep seeing them? The short answer is that they often work. Web and app designers who use these tricks knowingly capitalize on the fact that people have a tendency to skim webpages, click on appealing colors and not read the fine print. Their focus is on their bottom line, not yours.

But, there is hope. Designers are learning and sharing more about spotting and combatting deceptive design. State governments are also beginning to enact legislation to protect consumers. California recently expanded the California Consumer Privacy Act to address the use of misleading practices when getting individuals’ consent for data collection and processing.

The newly-approved regulations ban so-called “dark patterns” that delay or obscure the process for opting out of the sale of personal information. Specifically, it prohibits companies from burdening consumers with confusing language or unnecessary steps such as forcing them to click through multiple screens or listen to reasons why they shouldn’t opt out. [Source: California Attorney General]

More policy work to address deception in design is happening on the U.S. federal level, with the Federal Trade Commission signaling that it’s a priority for the agency.

At the end of the day, the use of manipulation in web design erodes consumer trust and confidence in the internet ecosystem and is patently bad for people and the web. And it needs to go. Mozilla supports federal legislation that has been introduced focused on banning such practices.

Firefox brings more clarity

Often the line between messages coming from a website or coming from the browser is blurred. The Firefox team designs experiences that are clear in their messaging and respectful of your time and attention. In our latest June release, the user interface has been updated so that there is no mistaking when Firefox is “talking to you” vs the site you’re on. Similarly, our notifications and messages make it clear that you have a choice to engage with them, and that using features should be a considered decision you make, not something we slip past you. Our products are designed to meet your needs and help you enjoy everything the web offers without trickery to get in your way.

*A note on words
You may notice we use “deceptive design patterns” rather than “dark patterns” throughout this article. While the latter is commonly used and has been for years, the phrase also reinforces the idea that being “dark” is “bad,” which is directly tied to white supremacy. In line with our anti-racist commitments, we are moving away from using exclusionary language, including metaphorical language that ties to white supremacy. We are instead choosing more factual terminology as other companies are doing as well.

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